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South African Prison Life: The Importance of Religion to Inmates and Ex-Offenders

Posted by on Thursday, October 19, 2017 in News, TIPs 2016.

Written by Zoe Psiakis, Vanderbilt Class of 2019

This summer, I was given the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, to conduct independent research. As a recipient of a Trans-Institutional Programs (TIPs) Student Grant through the African Studies department, I spent six weeks in Cape Town exploring a topic of my choosing. Having just finished my sophomore year as a Sociology and Religious Studies double major, the idea of living and learning in a new environment while immersed in a unique culture was beyond exciting. Traveling to South Africa with no real idea of what to expect besides what I had researched, I actually ended up stumbling upon my topic in a way that I definitely was not expecting.


The entrance to the Pollsmoor Prison facility.

I decided to apply for the grant after working with Prof. Dianna Bell on an independent study in Fall 2016. We focused on the intersection between religion and human rights, and my interests quickly drew me to the topic of prisons and the rights of the incarcerated. With this in mind, I set off to Cape Town, assuming I would focus on the human rights of prisoners. Yet, the project became much more streamlined once I arrived and began searching for leads.

As expected, it is relatively difficult to gain the clearances necessary for access to an international prison. After contacting a variety of government departments with no luck, I began to focus on prison ministries that provide religious services to the incarcerated. After speaking with representatives from a few organizations, I came across Prison Care Support Network (Prison Care), a Catholic ministry focused on restorative justice and bringing hope to the incarcerated. As someone who did not grow up in the Catholic faith, I was learning alongside the inmates. This gave me a unique perspective into the appeal and presentation of Prison Care’s programs.

While working with Prison Care, I experienced religious services within Pollsmoor, one of the most infamous prisons in South Africa, and participated in programs focused on integrating ex-offenders back into society upon their release. I also worked with people in townships, informal settlements with high crime rates, who received prayers and gifts in exchange for good school report cards and positive behavior. I interviewed a number of inmates, ex-offenders, township residents and prison volunteers about their experiences, and observed their behavior and relationships surrounding faith and worship.


The outside of a Cape Town township community. Residences are often constructed from sheet metal, boards of wood and other scrap materials.

These interviews provided me with a picture of the religious experience at Pollsmoor, regarding why inmates choose to be involved with Prison Care, why they prioritize religion as a whole, what the relationship of these prison ministries is with the prisons themselves, and what a religious service looks like inside the facility. I also learned about religious motivations for ex-offenders, in terms of why they stay involved after release and how the religious beliefs they establish in prison impact their lives on a daily basis after they are released. Additionally, I experienced a township on a very personal level, talking with children and parents about why they pray and maintain their religious beliefs, how they became involved with Prison Care, and what it is like to live in an area with an extremely high crime rate and few resources.


A religious mural inside of one of the cells of Robben Island, a former prison island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.

One of the most interesting aspects of my research, which was evident in almost every interview with an inmate or ex-offender, was the notion that religion served as a coping mechanism adopted upon entry to prison, not something that they brought with them. There were an overwhelming number of people who had never been religious or cared about religion at all before they were incarcerated, but adopted religion once inside. The reasons for doing so varied from responding to loneliness by choosing God as a companion, to a dire need for community leading to attendance at Church services, to adopting God as a perceived way of “getting life back on track,” and a whole host of others. It was apparent even among those who stated they had religious beliefs prior to incarceration that religion was intensified and prioritized within Pollsmoor. Prison Care was often the avenue for this change, so most of the people I talked to had decided to convert to Catholicism, and most maintained their beliefs after leaving prison.


Nelson Mandela’s cell while he was held at Robben Island.

Ultimately, I was not expecting to focus so heavily on the influence of prison ministries or the Catholic faith on the experiences of the incarcerated, nor was I imagining being able to meet and talk to so many interesting people outside of these facilities. This experience with TIPs not only allowed me to gain insight into a topic I was highly interested in, but also allowed me to go to a place where I knew no one and nothing about my surroundings and had to step far out of my comfort zone to succeed. I now feel ready to explore the issue even further, and intend to focus on these ideas in an international context to try to reach some broader conclusions.

If you’d like to learn more about anything I’ve mentioned, or have thoughts about the benefits and consequences of religion for inmates, please feel free to leave questions or comments in the space provided below.

Note about photos: I was not allowed to take photos inside of the prison complex, which is where most of my research was conducted. I also did not photograph the townships from a closer perspective as I did not want to disrespect the residents by sensationalizing their livelihoods.

4 Comments on “South African Prison Life: The Importance of Religion to Inmates and Ex-Offenders”

I believe your trip was intended to bring to light how important it is to have a faith purpose in your life to make it through this journey on Planet Earth. I would give you a A+. Thanks for sharing your time in Africa. I love you,Gramma.

Barbara Beshears. on October 20th, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for sharing, you make me proud Zoe. Love you. Gramma.

Barbara Beshears. on October 21st, 2017 at 11:48 am

Zoe, i cant believe reading your paper made me so interested in something, I didnt even know exsisted….so well written and informative,,,love you, Aunt Debbie

Anonymous on October 21st, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Wow, what an experience!! It goes to show you how the different paths our life takes us on, we ultimately find our Truth. God bless you and all those you met on your journey.
Sandy McCrary

Sandra A McCrary on October 21st, 2017 at 9:01 pm

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